10 breakthroughs for the next 60 years
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, which established the European Economic Community, the predecessor of the EU. During that time, the EU has provided more than EUR 200 billion to advance our understanding of the world around us and develop innovations to tackle the challenges faced by our society. At the halfway point of the EU’s biggest research and innovation funding programme, Horizon 2020, Steve Gillman explores a selection of EU-funded projects whose breakthroughs could help to shape Europe during the next 60 years.
Future food supply: There will be 9 billion people in the world by 2050, and we need to make sure we can feed them all in an environmentally and economically sustainable way. One solution could be to use new technologies such as the gene-editing tool CRISPR, which acts like molecular scissors to cut and paste DNA. The CRISP-4-CROPS project will be using CRISPR to produce new cereal varieties that can resist extreme weather events, helping to secure our future food supply even in the face of threats such as climate change.
Fighting cancer: In the EU, cancer was the cause of death for almost 1.3 million people in 2013. This number is likely to grow as life expectancy increases around the world. Spanish company Life Length is developing new blood tests that can identify our biological age by analysing the length of people’s telomeres – short sequences of DNA that protect the end of genes similar to shoelace caps – which tend to shorten over time. The idea of this project, known as ONCOCHECK, is to develop ways of monitoring and managing the majority of cancers more efficiently while allowing people to avoid invasive procedures.
Mission(s) to Mars: The red planet has long been a source of inspiration for science fiction, but in the next 60 years we can expect the first manned mission to already have happened. Nevertheless, we need a rocket to get us to Mars first and the answer could rest in using radioactive fuel to power an electric engine. The GIESEPP project will develop, build and test a prototype system by 2020.
Urban utopia: By 2030, the urban population in developed countries could double, putting more pressure on crucial infrastructure, such as energy demand and transport. The solution could be so-called smart cities, where almost every aspect of urban life is connected to a network of sensors and machines known as the internet of things (IoT). The REPLICATE project is developing smart city services in three European cities – San Sebastian in Spain, Florence in Italy and Bristol in the UK – which use the IoT to manage energy supply, heating, parking, electric mobility and public lighting.
Power from the sea: According to the EU, harnessing just 0.1 % of the power contained in ocean waves could supply the entire world's energy requirements five times over. UK-based Nova Innovation was the first business to prove that a system of underwater turbines known as tidal arrays can create clean energy that can be used by existing electricity grids. It is now leading the TIPA project which aims to reduce the cost of tidal energy technology by 20 % in order to make it more widely available.
Air pollution: Each year, there are 467 000 premature deaths in Europe as a result of air pollution. In cities, polluted air is getting worse, but there are ways to tackle the problem. The iScape project is testing innovations such as green walls and roofs to absorb CO2, paint designed to trap pollution, and air quality sensors to collect real-time data, in six cities, including Dublin in Ireland, London in the UK and Bologna in Italy.
Robot revolution: Robots are coming and they’re after (some) of our jobs. But that’s not going to happen just yet, first they will help us. The SecondHands project is designing a robot assistant that can understand maintenance tasks and act as a second pair of hands to the person carrying out the job. Once it has been trained, the idea is that it will be able to predict when it can provide help and know what actions to take to carry that out.
Zero-emission public transport: Dutch company Heliox has developed the first-ever fast-charging electric bus, which takes between two and five minutes to power up. Its fast-charging system, which is being commercialised through the CONCEPT project, opens the door to a zero-emission public transport system powered entirely by renewables, which would help reduce our carbon footprint and contribute to minimising global warming. Combine zero emissions with automation and these vehicles could someday run 24/7 carbon-free bus routes.
The end of plastic… pollution: Over 300 megatons of plastic is produced globally each year and it’s estimated that by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean. At the same time, only 14 % of plastic packaging is collected for recycling, while the wasted 86 % has an economic value of between EUR 70 billion and EUR 110 billion. The CRNPE project is looking at a solution to chemically recycle this rubbish and turn it back into an ingredient to develop new plastics, helping us cut down our use of raw materials and the amount of waste we send to landfill.
Drone workers: We’re likely to get used to airborne helpers as flying drones become a bigger part of our lives, carrying out tasks from product delivery to agricultural monitoring, inspections and maintenance or damage assessments. However, much like electric cars, these busy drones will need to be recharged. Through a project of the same name, French company ELISTAIR designed charging stations where drones can be tethered to a power supply that also allows data to be uploaded or downloaded, and which are compatible with 95 % of civilian drones.